Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 8th 2011
Mystic Archives of Dantalian
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Ah, dead relatives. The funeral; the mourning; the weird crap to inherit. A house in the country. An extensive library. A little girl. Hugh Anthony Disward—Huey to his friends—inherits all three when his bibliophile grandfather is shot in a highly suspicious burglary. He was expecting the house and the library. Not so much the girl. Her name is Dalian and before his little inheritance adventure is over he will have learned that she is a Biblioprincess, a living gateway to the Mystic Archives of Dantalian, which houses all of the world's forbidden knowledge. Together they tour post-Great War England, investigating books that have mysterious, and often deadly or uncontrollable, powers.
If there's one thing you can usually count on Gainax for, it's an extra layer of depth. There's nearly always more going on beneath their genre trappings than expected. That's all fine and good, but shouldn't we have at least glimpsed it by now? Dantalian is a rich slice of atmosphere wrapped in a thin veil of sleuthing, and that's all. It's plenty tasty most of the time, but it leaves you feeling kind of empty in the end.
Dantalian is essentially a supernatural mystery series, with the mysteries centered on magical books and contained to single episodes. An episode will begin with Huey and Dalian getting a request, either through a letter or a visitor, usually about some abnormal activity surrounding a book, proceed through their snooping around, and end with Huey pulling the right book for the job from Dalian, after which the perpetrator will generally suffer some ironic form of justice. It isn't an ironbound formula; there are plenty of deviations, some small, some large. But it is the framework around which most of the episodes build their plots. You keep expecting something to emerge from the cycling formula, some greater plot, a significant theme, an evolving relationship, a unifying mystery—anything really—but nothing much does. They're just gothic mysteries, with a good dose of repetition and without a whole lot of mystery. You can generally figure out the culprit, and indeed most of each episode's plot, with a minimum of actual brainwork.
Don't knock that, though. Keeping the stories basic and self-contained, as well as formulaic, allows the series to focus the bulk of its energies on atmosphere. Which, frankly, is what it does best. Most of Dantalian takes place on picturesque estates built around moldering structures inside of which lurk unknown evils. The series makes fine use of what appear to be real background photos, as well as the dark, intricate interiors of Victorian architecture, to create an oppressive sense of supernatural potential. Much of each episode consists of Huey and Dalian walking the winding corridors, sinister outbuildings, and haunted grounds of whatever new place they're investigating as Yo Tsuji spins delicate vocals into eerie arias around them. The series' imagery, at least, haunts one well after the episode has run its course: Dalian and Huey framed by a door beyond which moonlit clouds crawl through a sickly green sky; looking up from the bottom of a pail as a proper English lady coolly drops a bloodied machete into the water; the entire opening sequence, which gathers the finest in the series' art and animation and sets it to a shiveringly beautiful hymn.
And even without its thick layer of atmosphere, even if the big stuff is repetitive boilerplate, there are plenty of little things to set the series' stories apart from the pack. Though not really grand enough to be called a theme, much less a unifying one, Dantalian's tales betray a recurrent concern for what happens when ordinary people and ordinary evil are given extraordinary power. Apathy, misguided kindness, chivalry, and stark madness all result, also betraying a hidden intelligence. Its literary spells speak to a unique belief in the power of words (literally in Huey's case, but also figuratively as well). The characters may not be terribly well-written or unique (Huey's intelligence level fluctuates wildly and Dalian is a model tsundere), but in choosing a skilled, confident adult (gasp!) as its lead the series draws a sharp line between it and its peers, and there's a droll humor to Dalian's rapport with Huey that distinguishes it from the countless other tsundere relationships out there. When all of those little things combine correctly with the show's uneasy atmosphere, wonderfully unpleasant things can be created.
It's telling, though, that that only happens within the confines of the series' formula. Perhaps the greatest evidence that Dantalian's fondness for basic, formula-bound, standalone stories isn't necessarily a bad thing is how absolutely miserable it is when it breaks away from them. Episode five ramps up the plot complexity while turning its hand to humor, and the result is a load of rushed rubbish about magicians and homunculi made more rubbishy by a load of surreal humor. By the time the episode breaks into admittedly fabulous Gurren Lagann-styled animation, all you want is for the series to stop violating itself. The episode so thoroughly shatters the carefully maintained atmosphere that it isn't until halfway through the next one, which itself breaks ranks by focusing on a different Biblioprincess pair, that one feels comfortable again. Compare that to episode four, a thoroughly formula-bound horror gem, based in a charnel-house basement and built around a clever and incredibly cruel Grimm-meets-Stephen King conceit, and you can't help but hope that such experiments are few and far between.
It doesn't much matter in the end how justified the series is in sticking to simple formulas and avoiding innovation and profundity, though. It still leaves you feeling unfulfilled. But then there's that niggling voice in the back of your head that says maybe you're only feeling unfulfilled because you have unrealistic expectations about Gainax works. Maybe you should just be happy that it's spooky and attractive and isn't Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. Then you think about Evangelion and His and Her Circumstances and Gurren Lagann and even Mahoromatic and Abenobashi and This Ugly Yet Beautiful World and you kick that little voice in the crotch just like it deserves and start wondering if maybe Dalian's faint hint of inhumanity or maybe that concern with ordinary people and extraordinary power will blossom into something deeper and more interesting.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Great atmosphere, amusing character dynamics, an actual adult lead, and the occasional superbly crafted chiller of an episode; bursts of "now that's Gainax" animation.
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